Neville Kanakaratne had spent several hours with Lakshmi on the evening before she died, and that is perhaps the only grain of comfort in the sad story of her last days. She was murdered, on Thursday the 11th of May 1995, by one of the drivers she used to hire from the Automobile Association, who seemed to have assumed that a lady of means living by herself would have riches in the house and been easy prey.
Lakshmi had stopped using the man’s services, for good reason, which she made clear to him in her usual blunt fashion. That may have roused his resentment further. She was alone in those days, for her half witted woman had left her for the umpteenth time. The murderer had come to see her, ostensibly to ask to work for her again, and she had been talking to him, thinking that she was safe behind the iron grille of her garage. But it had not been locked, and it seems it had been easy for him to push her in and follow, and then kill her.
I heard the news at Ena’s. I had been travelling on work for the University Grants Commission, and had got to Aluwihare on the Saturday morning for the weekend, after looking at General English Language Training Centres in Anuradhapura on Friday. I had not seen Lakshmi for some time before that, and being at Aluwihare made me more acutely conscious of how I had neglected her in the last year.
We all had. My grandmother had died in June the previous year, and that had served sadly to reduce Lakshmi’s connections with Lakmahal. Previously she would drop in every couple of days, to just sit with the old lady, which no one else did to any appreciable extent. After her aunt died however she had no reason to visit, and the house was in even greater chaos than ever. My mother, who was never one for small talk anyway, was busy in looking after her grandchildren, since my brother had decided to send them back from Hongkong, where he was working. He and his wife were in Lakshmi’s league as far as keeping servants went and, when they fell out with yet a second maid they had taken with them, they decided that the simplest solution would be for my mother to take on the responsibility.
I suppose my brother thought this would be a pleasure for his parents. Previously perhaps this would have been true, for they had uncomplainingly looked after his son when, right through the eighties, the boy had been sent up and down between Colombo and Oxford, where my brother and his wife were pursuing higher qualifications. But even then, though they dearly loved the child, the responsibility weighed heavily on them, as I found when my mother explained the excessive care they took on the grounds that they were dealing with other people’s children. ‘If anything happened….’ was a constant fear, expressed on occasion, and lurking relentlessly.
I was furious, which did not help. I had watched my parents suffer as my grandmother grew more and more frail. My mother could not leave her, which meant that my father was not able to take up the various ambassadorial posts he was offered. I knew he would have enjoyed one or two of them, and they would have made a fantastic couple to represent the country. I am not sure whether in 1994 the offer would have come again, but the question was academic for now my mother was in servitude to her grandchildren. Looking after her mother was a responsibility that she could not have avoided, but it seemed to me that the other was an imposition.
Fortunately my own work took me out a lot, but this meant that Lakshmi had no one practically to talk to if she visited. We also knew little of what was going on in her life, and did not make time to ask, or even to discuss it among ourselves, and work out whether we should be doing more for her. We should have, for we were the only family we had.
Much later my father told me that he thought, though he could not be sure, that Lakshmi had suggested to my mother that she leave her little house in Bagatelle Road to me. Characteristically, she had not mentioned this to me, and characteristically, my mother dismissed the suggestion. Disliking property intensely herself – from the lofty standpoint of someone who had never lacked it – she would have hated the idea of her children seeming to be dependent on the generosity of others. Lakshmi would have seen things differently, realizing how I suffered from not having a place of my own, feeling that family ties demanded she leave what she had to a blood relation, and perhaps thinking that I had been the closest to both her and her father, even though I had done nothing much for her in the last few years.
So she died intestate, and what she had was shared equally between my mother and the children of her brother Esmond. Fortunately the two girls in the two families got on very well, and shared things out evenly, so that everyone was happy. Where they were deficient was in pursuing the case against Lakshmi’s murderer. It was only I think my father’s connections with the police that ensured a relatively efficient investigation, arrests and indictments. However, my father’s suggestion that the police be given a reward was rejected, my sister seeing this as bribery, and my cousin worried that any such move might reflect on her brother, who was then Leader of the Opposition.
My father explained that, regrettable as it was, such rewards were now customary, and would ensure that the police pursued the case energetically. But nothing was forthcoming, and I believe the murderer was let out on bail and killed someone again. What has happened since, none of us knows.
It is understandable I suppose that no one else in the family feels a sense of failure about this as I do. Esmond’s children, though fond enough of Lakshmi, never really mixed with her the way I did. My brother was in Hong Kong, and then went off to Australia, and he had never really had the same sense of family as my sister and I did. And then she, with a young family of her own, concentrating on the testamentary case and never able to deal with too many things at the same time, felt relieved I think at her cousin’s decision not to pursue the matter.
I should have done more myself. It is true that I was out of things at the time, moving out of Lakmahal in fact a few months later, until the house was more peaceful. Soon after I moved back, my mother died, and that obviously was the wrong time to press my father as to Lakshmi’s case. His view was that the younger generation had taken over, and had ignored his advice. My sister was equally insistent that she could not act on her own. And I am afraid, in the need to limit contentiousness in those days of emotion, I acquiesced and did not push things.
Presumably even now it is not too late. But the matter is closed in the views of the rest, and to find details seems too complicated. I feel that this is not good enough, for the last of our line to live at the Old Place, but that is where the matter will rest, without proper closure.